To use Occam's razor one must first tell the beard from the throat

Moore’s Unrequieted Love

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Michael Moore wrote a letter beseeching prez BHO not to escalate the Afghan war.  I am actually somewhat surprised as to how unimaginative the letter is. I’ve followed Moore for years and mostly respected him for saying what many US educated liberals barely seemed to have the guts to think, let alone say out loud. However, in this letter MM chooses to make his statement by openly professing “love” for the Dear Leader and asking him to lead — and ignores the fact that BHO, well, will not and can not “lead”, not in the way Moore wants him to.

Some who agree with MM’s letter may denounce my view as disillusioned and cynical, but I think it is only realistic. Democratic governments and presidents are elected to administer and decidedly NOT to bring about people’s hopes and desires; even at its best, administration is a pragmatic, compromised, dirty affair, even though it’s ideally geared toward fulfilling popular mandates.  But even such a relatively modest ideal depends on the elected officials being aware of their mandate, which they are not: for all the high technology and 24-hour news cycle, or precisely because of it, I suspect that the information environment high officials live in is skewed so much that they’re scattered widely on either side of delusional.

In U.S., the people whose version of events the presidents are likely to hear are much more likely to be corporate bosses and lobbyists than union and consumer reps, military leaders rather than humanitarian workers and civic activists. These imbalances relax somewhat during campaigns, but are always firmly in place in everyday decision making.  Even assuming a president who is keenly aware of this — BHO at least showed he understood it well enough to occasionally sound convincing — what is s/he to do once in office? Confront her/his campaign donors with the necessity of relinquishing access and influence to those with less power and opposing interests, simple because they’re in majority? This would at best be quixotic, and if done in earnest, a sure way to alienate a lot of political allies & make even more enemies, a political suicide in the one-and-a-half party system with more pragmatic hustlers waiting in the wings.

Still, many of us are much better represented by unions, consumer advocates, humanitarians, civic activists and the like.  As a result, even assuming best intentions, a U.S. chief executive — just as most high ranking elected officials anywhere, really — simply do not have enough leverage to lead their countries in a representative manner, and can not get themselves out of this fix alone.  Instead there needs to be a way for them to feel the heat from the groups they represents badly.  Some US heads of state understood this — for example, FDR reportedly suggested to labor reps to force his hand do their bidding — but that was a very very long time ago.  At this moment, when BHO is clearly (for me, at least!) making a colossal but, for him, perhaps inevitable blunder, he should be hearing from everybody, in every possible way. It is amazing that in this situation MM would choose to (a) plead, (b) ask people merely to call the White House, (c) profess his “love” (!!!) for the president.

But what am I saying? Many people say they “love” the guy.

I grew up in a softly dictatorial communist country, and sure enough, much of the rhetoric about the long-serving president had qualities of mild Platonic erotica. In the US today, many people I know profess feelings of warmth — at least, of personal emotional investment — for BHO. For starters, from the point of view of basic mental health, this does not feel right to me.  More importantly, though, I do not think it can in any way be good for democracy.

Every so often it is natural to feel a degree of identification, admiration, even affection for someone famous.  Yet it is easy to see how such feelings can become creepy once they become coupled with expectations.  Expecting someone you only know from the media to bring you personally significant, transformative change — this is usually a case for a shrink.  I’d say this applies just as much when the celebrity is a politician.  Sure, faith and admiration for another, even when asymmetrical, is the core of what makes life meaningful if it is between people who know one another, whose relationship does not rely on third-party mediation.  Conversely, we’re still in the relatively sane territory if we don’t share this world at all with the “celebrity” we admire — I’m talking about Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha & their fellow superstars.  There the medium of interaction is spiritual, ritualized and socially accepted as such, and while I’d argue that religion is problematic in other ways, in this context it provides structured, stable, frequently constructive ways for a person to believe s/he is in emotional communion with an entity not present in one’s reality.

Politicians, however, are neither prophets nor (for the most part) our acquaintances. What they are, first and foremost, is people of flesh and blood who try to do administrative jobs within an imperfect and deeply flawed system but who chose to do so, and we do them and ourselves a disservice by experiencing them as something more. They have to wear charismatic personas in order to get elected, but when the cameras are off, they are just as fragile as everyone else. If they are at all in touch with reality, they should be just as insecure as any other celebrity, caught in the grip of social forces they can only vaguely understand and control.

Politicians are not rock stars, either. Being in the spotlight causes great personal strain, but for showbiz celebrities the trouble can end close to home.  The attention they get in public turns most of their private lives into a mess, yet this usually hurts just them and their loved ones; to us, if anything, it only provides more entertainment.  But politicians affect us all much more profoundly. They’re also confronted with forces largely beyond their control, but at the same time are elected to manage them on the basis of how convincingly they pretend they can do so.  Once elected, they are required to act responsibly, be functional, and inspire confidence.  Rock stars have the option to withdraw, have a breakdown in their own private time and stage a comeback after cooling off in private rehab, but the pols must hide their inadequacies in plain sight.  And so they do, behind expert advisers, policy doctrines and “decisive” actions, which help pols save face and balance conflicting interests at the cost of destroying others’ lives.

Just pleading with politicos to stop acting so is like asking the bed to make itself, and expressing “love” and confidence in their public personas, I think, only exacerbates the problem. We need to get realistic about things we really, desperately, need addressed — peace? climate? health? poverty? — and if the pols cannot, start figuring out — peacefully but assertively — how to take care of it ourselves.  And when the apparatchiks starts freaking out, which they inevitably will, we need to let them know that it’s ok, that we’re trying to save them trouble, and kindly ask them to provide advice rather than get in our way. None of this is easy, our skills and knowledge are inadequate to the task, but if we want there to be a world we can leave to our grandkids we better start learning soon.

Some will say that this is utopian, that we don’t have the wherewithal for such undertakings. Instead, they’d say, we should have faith in the political process, most officials really mean well, and if we put our trust in them, hope hard enough, perhaps wait for the next election cycle, good things will come. But politicians, whether good or bad, operate within sticky webs of power that render them incapable of doing most of those of good things you, I, and probably many of them wish they could do.  To this, some will respond I am being too cynical, and again propose the same remedy.  But look at the track record of governance in the past decades: the elected officials’ ability to deliver on promises & fulfill their mandates has been steadily and reliably shrinking.

Looking back at Moore, and indeed many others dear to me, I see them struggling with an emotional and moral investment in people who cannot possibly live up to their expectations.  I see this dynamic reproduced in staged performances — campaigns, most prominently — in which both sides pretend these expectations are realistic, and get off with enough buzz to last them until the next cycle.  This strikes me as downright unhealthy for all involved — which would be manageable but for the fact it’s taking place smack instead of dealing with real societal issues.  It looks like a sure recipe for a society to devour itself alive.

Still, people insist that their only realistic choice is to keep projecting their hopes onto various, possibly elected, Dear Leaders.  This I see as the real utopia, the real mindless optimism that sadly has no basis in reality.  It is, in turn, is based on a profound pessimism, that constructive change must come from above because we’re not willing, ready, or able to produce it from bottom up.  Persisting in this belief while living in one of the richest, most resourceful societies in history — this, in my mind, is the real cynicism.


Written by miranche

2 December 2009 at 21:33

Posted in Contentious, Current

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